Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Whole Counsel of God

I've been having an email discussion with some friends recently, in which I've been using the phrase "whole counsel of God". This isn't meant to be a public continuation of that discussion... it's just been on my mind a lot for the last several months. I've been mulling this over since Thanksgiving, and wanted to vent some on my blog. So if you've gotten email from me, ranting about the whole counsel of God... this isn't aimed at you.

Several years ago, I was hanging out with a close friend in Kentucky. We were chatting, and I mentioned some frustration with a Christian with whom I had been speaking via email. I was looking for the right word: it's not that that this person was wrong per se, but that she was focused on one particular topic to the point of tunnel vision.

"She's missing the whole counsel of God," my friend sagely offered.

And ever since that day, I've been trying to think in terms of the whole counsel of God.

It's not easy, because we all have passages we like better than others. Martin Luther is said to have decided James' epistle is not Scripture, because he thought it opposed Romans. Whether that's actually true, it reveals the trap into which we are all prone to fall: leaving off the whole counsel of God.

Yeah, there are some topics I like more than others. I really like to think about the Gospel, about God's reaching down to rescue poor sinners at a tremendous cost to Himself. And so I tend to bask in the Gospel, sometimes at the cost of the rest of Scripture. But I ought not to.

Embracing the whole counsel of God is closely linked to something else I'm prone to rant about: being subject to the Word of God.

Part of embracing the whole counsel of God is perhaps not so obvious: we need to be subject to the Word of God. I rant about this a lot, partly because it's close to my heart. I have been on a personal quest for about 4 years now to really and honestly depend on Scripture. I've tried to be careful to limit my vocabulary to Scripture. I've been conscious of the difference between what Scripture says and what I think it means. I've tried to, in Andrew's words, allow Scripture to master me, rather than trying to master it.

I think part of that is my own idealism. A lot of it is my admiration for people like Darby and Nee and Luther who were willing to chuck everything if they couldn't see it line up with Scripture. Some of it is just to see what happens and how much everything unravels if I do this.

Rich Mullins wrote a blurb about John 6, in which he said that the disciples didn't have 1900 years of theology to soften the blow of Christ telling them they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood. That really sunk in with me: the idea of theology softening the blow of what God has said. George Orwell once said the two purposes of language are to convey meaning and to obscure it; I've started to think we could similarly describe theology. The purpose of theology is to reveal God, or to hide from Him.

When the children of Israel got to Sinai in Exodus 19, God told them:

4* Ye have seen what I have done to the Egyptians, and how I have borne you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
5 And now, if ye will hearken to my voice indeed and keep my covenant, then shall ye be my own possession out of all the peoples--for all the earth is mine--
6* and ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak to the children of Israel.

God didn't tell the people to all come up the mountain, that's true. He singled out Moses. But He did say, "let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day Jehovah will come down before the eyes of all the people on mount Sinai" (v. 11).

But the people didn't think that was such a good idea. So in chapter 20, we read their response:

18* And all the people saw the thunderings, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off,
19 and said to Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.
20* And Moses said to the people, Fear not; for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before you, that ye sin not.
21 And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the obscurity where God was.

In fact, this is the starting assumption of John's gospel, "He was in the world, and the world had its being through him, and the world knew him not. He came to his own, and his own received him not;" (John 1:10--11). Man doesn't like to be in God's presence.

It seems to me theology serves a good many of us as a way to assuage our consciences without having to actually meet God. It stands as a buffer between ourselves and Holy Scripture so that we can "soften the blow" and assure one another "that's not really what it means".

And for the past several years I've been asking, "but what if that is what it means?"

But I suppose that's a topic for another day...

I find if I'm going to go to Scripture to hear God speak---rather than to find a proof-text for some position or to prop up my theology---He doesn't seem to say what I expect. I remember quite clearly when I first really sat down and read my Bible cover-to-cover (many years ago), I was surprised at how little the Bible lined up with what I thought it said. And conversely, how much it said about things I had never considered. Even now, having read the Bible through many times, I'm surprised as much by what it doesn't say as by what it does.

It seems to me that one of the most dangerous things we can do is to try to "balance" what we see in Scripture. I hear that a lot from people, "we need to be balanced". I think that's a very dangerous approach. It might be the worst possible approach to take. It's dangerous, partly because it's based on the assumption that tunnel vision is correct. It seems to me that "balance" is really all about setting Scripture in opposition to itself, narrowing what Scripture says, rather than allowing myself to be broadened in order to see the whole truth.

So we don't assume that if Romans is Scripture, then James can't be. We accept that both Romans and James are Scripture, and we hang on to see where our understanding is defective.

I'm not saying Scripture contradicts itself: I'm saying where there is an apparent contradiction, we need to try and hear what God says, rather than deciding which passage is correct. And frankly, this is where I've found it's very important to be very careful of the actual words of Scripture. I have found time and again, when I limit myself to the vocabulary Scripture uses, the vast majority of seeming contradictions just evapourate.

As an example, Scripture uses the term "son" and the term "child". I've heard many, many people confuse those terms. But they're simply not equivalent. We're sons by adoption, children by birth. There is a vast difference between these two ideas... and Scripture doesn't confuse them.

Another example is "justification" and "salvation". They're not equivalent terms, and confusing them leads to all sorts of strange ideas. Evangelicals talk about "I was saved in 1983" or something... but Scripture really doesn't speak like that. Scripture very carefully distinguishes between being justified and being saved. Consider Romans 5:9, "Much rather therefore, having been now justified in the power of his blood, we shall be saved by him from wrath." Notice the tenses, we "have been justified", we "shall be saved". Romans doesn't even use the word "saved" until chapter 5, after the complete discussion of justification. Romans consistently uses the words "saved" and "salvation" to refer to a future thing. (Romans 8:24 too, there it is "saved in hope"; not as a present salvation, but as a looking forward to a future one). So when Romans declares we're justified by faith alone plus absolutely nothing else (Romans 4:5), it's not contradicting Peter's statement that we're saved by baptism. They are both true: the one passage is about justification, the other, salvation.

It's very, very dangerous to use terms interchangeably when Scripture does not.

And then, there is the issue of understanding context. Romans always uses "saved" in the future: Ephesians uses it in the past. So there is a different sense of usage of that word in Romans than in Ephesians.

And since we come to that, we might say too that a lot of Christians like to point out that the unregenerate are "dead in trespasses and sins". That's very true... in Ephesians and Colossians. But in Romans and Galatians, the unregenerate are very much alive in trespasses in sins. So Romans 6 tells us we have been crucified with Christ, buried with Him, and raised with Him. But in Ephesians, we're not crucified with Him, because we started out dead. A dead man doesn't need to be crucified.

So context matters.

But to get back on track... the whole counsel of God is something much bigger than I am generally wont to consider. The Scripture definitely condemns the unrighteous, but it offers them the Gospel too. The Scripture is very careful to point out the world is a wicked, wicked place... but it also assures us we're here by design.

God's ultimate purpose is not merely to save sinners, nor to bring them to perfection "in Christ". It's not to bring "social justice" (which is a silly expression to begin with) nor to make the world a better place. It's not merely that He wants people to know Him, although that might get a little closer to the truth. God's purpose, according to Ephesians 1, is "to head up all things in Christ". The Son of God is really the center of all God's thoughts, plans, and (yes, I will use the word) schemes.

God has purposed from before the beginning of the world to head up "all things" in Christ. And I think this is where I really need to go back to the whole counsel of God. I'm really uncomfortable calling myself dispensationalist, although that's more or less an accurate description. But I think "we dispensationalists" (if I may use the term) have been far too narrow in our focus. We are afraid of words like "kingdom" (Paul wasn't, Col. 1:13) because we want to be careful not to confuse Church and Israel. (The Church is part of the kingdom, like Israel, but that's another discussion.)

And on the other side, we have people who are unwilling to acknowledge Scripture's clear teaching that the believer is not under Law. That the idea of a "Moral Law" somehow distinct from the "Ceremonial Law" is really entirely contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. Where dispensationalists have been slow to acknowledge God's whole counsel that's not strictly "Church", others are reluctant to ignore the plain Scriptural teaching that the Law was given to a specific group for a specific purpose.

There's a ditch on both sides of the road.

Fundamentally, when we're afraid of embracing all of Scripture, we reveal that we're ultimately missing the point. The whole counsel of God isn't about us... it's about Christ. God's purpose in the Son is not something we can see when we look at just one facet of the truth: it is revealed in His whole counsel. And that, ultimately, is what we're responsible for.


Chuck Hicks said...

Great post; in particular, I was struck by the helpful distinction between present justification and future salvation. I think the New Perspective on Paul gets fails to get that distinction....but that's another topic.

Shan said...

Best line in the entire post:

There's a ditch on both sides of the road.